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Finding Summer Sunshine in ‘Tammy’ Beyond the Muck and the Fat Jokes

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By: Joey Nolfi

Twitter: @joeynolfi

What makes a movie worth something? In the blistering months of summer, we find ourselves flocking to the theater in droves to see them: the good ones, the bad ones, the everything-in-between ones. We accept the notion that this is a supposed to be a time for relaxation, a time to drift away from the 40-hour workweek and into the soft caress of increasing temperatures and cool breezes in that wide open space that’s in between your front door and your air-conditioned sedan.

But, being the good cinephiles that we are, we shut ourselves away in tiny, cramped, darkened little theaters and let others create the fantasy for us. We still associate film with escapism, just the same as we hold onto the coded image of summer as if it still bears the same fruits that three months of nothingness ahead of you in the waning days of May did when you were 15 years old.

Of course, the reality for adults is much different. Summer is simply supposed to be synonymous with easy, but the film industry often kicks into overdrive during these months, pummeling us with male-driven tentpole after male-driven tentpole in a cycle that’s driving its top-heavy films into the ground, pushing “minority” characters and stories to the side, and testing just how much audiences will put up with (grosses for 2014’s summer flicks thus far trail last year’s grosses by 15%, according to Deadline Hollywood) en route to a monolithically-male American film culture.

In an industry where real female characters in front of the camera are rare and a female eye behind the lens is even harder to come by, it’s unfortunate that a film like Tammy—one undoubtedly meant as a lighthearted tread through fields of breezy summer tastes that appeal to the masses—lands itself amid an inescapable storm of web-based chatter from all possible perspectives. People don’t want to let the film be as it is without all the extra baggage it may or may not be carrying with arms of its own. Still, we talk; “Tammy is a film about equality for big girls” some say. “Can we please stop talking about Melissa McCarthy’s weight?” others, like Entertainment Weekly’s Karen Valby did here) chime in. Tammy is being pulled in a million different directions so much that feels like we’ve run the course with it even though we’re still a good 24 hours away from its official opening.

What is true “worth” when talking about a summer blockbuster, then? If we tip so heavily to the side of male taste, is there room for anything else—even, say, a subpar overall film like Tammy—to be worth something in bits as opposed to as a whole?

Heavy discourse might be valid when talking about a film that’s worth something in the eyes of the masses, which Tammy will be if good word of mouth carries it past the modest $30-$40 million holiday haul it’s poised for, though we seem to be more preoccupied with throwing our own words around prior to seeing the actual film than seeing Tammy for what it is; a ridiculously uneven spectacle that digs its own holes that are similar in size and size and scope to the ones dug by others it so desperately seeks to climb out of. But, in the age of the internet court, where everyone’s voice is falsely validated by their ability to fit it into a 140-character space, criticism becomes something that altogether precedes content, and it’s dangerous to glob a film like Tammy into a grey box in an industry that so blatantly separates gender into black and white despite its shortcomings.

We have to pick and choose what we pull from films like Tammy, which stars Melissa McCarthy as a 30-something slob with an ex-job, soon-to-be-ex-husband, and an excommunication from a reality, as she attempts to capitalize on her newfound freedom with a road trip to Niagara Falls with her grandmother, Pearl (Susan Sarandon), though they veer far off track and the film careens into all-over-the-place territory as Tammy embarks on a true journey of self-discovery. McCarthy’s script (co-written with her husband, Ben Falcone, who also directed the picture) feels like a series of aimless vignettes that wear the same comedic gimmicks that McCarthy has relied on for three years now so extremely thin that the barely-there thread connecting everything feels as if its about to snap and coil in on itself if one more self-deprecating fat joke or improvised run-on slithers out of McCarthy’s mouth.

Take it like any subcultural film movement appropriating the normative culture’s use of words that are derogatory (the “f” word, the “n” word), but McCarthy’s use of fat jokes at first doesn’t seem like a harnessing of control, but rather feels like a repetitive reliance on an easy gag. The laughs are there, but the punch isn’t. For that reason, it’s nearly impossible to leave the discussion about weight and gender at the door, namely because the film is more than attributable to McCarthy’s own doing: she wrote the script, after all, and her husband called the shots on set. That doesn’t do much for objectivity on their part, and it makes for a film that feels more self-indulgent on McCarthy’s part than it does self-revelatory for the character she’s created on the page and on the screen…for the first half, that is.

So, the overwhelmingly negative response the film is receiving from initial screenings is warranted for the most part: the film’s first half is a silly romp that does very little to elevate itself above the rest of the summer muck. Again, we must be careful, as so rarely are we given female characters like the ones in Tammy that the film surrounding them takes a backseat to the importance of their existence as characters in the first place. The film’s back half, however, turns the nose of the sinking ship toward the sun.

For starters, it’s become quite common to observe that Melissa McCarthy’s body type doesn’t fit in with the normal blueprint Hollywood has drawn for women to build upon, and when lines like “you didn’t fuck the ice cream man just for the ice cream, did you?” and “I kind of got into the pies” punctuate a film that includes scenes of an overweight woman struggling to climb over a small counter top and falling to her knees after dropping three feet off the top of a table, what is an audience supposed to think? McCarthy begs us to view her body as a comedic tool, and while that makes it impossible to leave discussion about its star’s body out of the equation, it does indicate that there is a consciousness to her methods.

xmelissa-mccarthy-susan-sarandon-tammy.jpg.pagespeed.ic.KmtdTVSL3lTammy is a studio production aimed at pleasing the crowds, and it will do that on some level, but the film also explores things you’d never see in the male-driven industry today, thanks largely in part to McCarthy’s power as a box-office draw and audience darling. There are female characters (even lesbians!) that are defined by more than their sexuality and/or their relationship to a man—in a Hollywood production! Though the lack of objectivity and more creative license given to McCarthy in terms of script and performance speaks to her power as a female star with a box-office draw, her decision to include the fat jokes in her own script indicate a comfort and an acceptance of her body. That’s obvious. It’s just wholeheartedly discouraging to see her reducing herself to fodder for trailers with material that’s just not very creative, and altogether makes her body something that we have to think about as something someone has to “accept” in the first place. Is there something wrong with you if you aren’t Melissa McCarthy but have Melissa McCarthy’s body type and no outlet to show off your self-deprecating humor?

Sure, we can say that it’s unfair to talk about women’s bodies and focus on the weight, but Melissa McCarthy’s films seem to fixate on it more than the rest of us do: the jokes are at the expense of her weight and wouldn’t work on a skinny person. McCarthy doesn’t use these jokes as a crutch beyond the first half of the film or so (they’re peppered throughout the entire thing, but ultimately don’t define it), she’s just playing up her assets, and she treats her body as such; she doesn’t create a character who’s disgusting, but rather someone who’s in control of losing control of her body for comedic effect.

It’s this consciousness of what makes McCarthy “different”—both as someone who doesn’t fit the “normal” mold of Hollywood actresses and as a powerful woman in an industry dominated by men—that makes aspects of Tammy accessible in a way we’re not used to seeing in a big-budget Hollywood production. There’s a deliberate effort to construct a non-mainstream, non-typical woman and give her the agency that beautiful, rail-thin leading ladies in other films don’t even get. Without spoiling anything, we do see Tammy getting a choice along her path to romance, the freedom from hinging her life’s decisions on the pursuit of a man, valuable, complex relationships with women based on things that don’t have to do with men, and the power to be the agent of her own story, not dangle from the hands of someone else. This is a story about women helping women, even if the beginning bits distracted us along the way.

So, what does Tammy want to be, and what does it end up being? It’s a line we can’t clearly draw because the film itself is so structurally misshapen, but we can appreciate what little glimmer there is to be extracted from the earnesty of its all-poweful female star and screenwriter. We can’t blindly accept films like Tammy as a whole simply because there are elements that subvert the norm. A mediocre product from a woman, starring a woman who contrasts what other studios are pushing doesn’t make it a great film, but you can make a dry, crusty, dirt-browned potato shine like a juicy red, freshly-plucked tomato; you just have to tilt it a little and lift it into the sun for closer inspection.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

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Director Ingrid Veninger Talks Women in Film, the Canadian Identity, and ‘The Animal Project’

“There’s a quote by Cassavetes…”

She trails off for only a split moment, pausing our conversation so she can skim through something (Her personal archives? Her email? I never find out) to locate it. A few shuffles here, a few seconds there, and she’s got it, reading it crisp and clear with the assertion of assurance on her side.

The only thing you need to make a film is to not be afraid of anybody or anything.

I prepare to agree and tell her how much I like the quote; it’s standard interview etiquette to flatter your interviewee, I remind myself. I open my mouth to chime in with my approval, but she continues.

“…and I love John Cassavetes, but I think to myself, ‘that’s just not me.’ I’m afraid and full of doubt. I am uncertain all the time, but I think to live and create and be in the world in spite of that or with that, through that, and being afraid and doing it anyway, being uncertain and plowing through anyway, that’s much more interesting to me.”

It’s dangerous to make assumptions with Ingrid Veninger.

She doesn’t fit into any particular box, but again, assuming she’s obligated to is a colossal misjudgment of her character.

“To me, it’s all about where I feel comfortable, because I feel comfortable on a subway full of misfits and outcasts and people from elsewhere, because people are struggling to belong but are also ok with who they are.”

But, like any filmmaker with a product on the market, Veninger has to tackle the task of making her creative, individualized, highly unique voice heard amidst a sea of what can often seem like audience indifference when the masses are used to their Spidermans and Iron Mans.

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I first saw her latest film The Animal Project, which is readying for a worldwide June 6th release on Vimeo VOD and iTunes Canada, when she brought it here (personally) last November as part of Pittsburgh’s annual Three Rivers Film Festival. I found it odd that such an accomplished international filmmaker would make a mid-sized American city like Pittsburgh a travel priority; after all, she’s helmed (written, produced, directed, or a combination of all three) 18 films, and has shown a few of them at the Toronto International Film Festival (her Modra was named one of the 10 best Canadian films at TIFF a few years back) and elsewhere abroad.

“[Film festivals] are not about the money, but they are about exposure. With each film festival comes, hopefully, a little bit of local press and a live audience that you can exchange with,” she says of her insistence upon traveling with her films from places like Santiago to Ashland. “That exchange with living people happens at film festivals, and for me it’s crucial.”

There were maybe a little over 20 people in the audience when The Animal Project screened here in Pittsburgh, and Veninger made a point to probe us with questions, but I get the sense that she would’ve delighted to speak about her work to only the projectionist and a house full of empty seats if no one at all had shown up. While the goal for anyone working in any business is to earn some sort of revenue, Veninger hopes for something much simpler.

“I just hope some cool adventures come out from all of this,” she says.

It’s clear to see that Veninger cares about her films like they’re living, breathing children that have sprung forth from her flesh and being—and she treats them accordingly, seeing it as her duty to show them off and talk about them to strangers, like a parent with a child on the honor roll every semester.

“Every time I wanted to make [The Animal Project] sparkle and shine, the film said ‘no can do’,” she says of the decision to minimize non-diegetic music within the film. “Music was just getting in the way of [the film’s tone]. Music could have tied a lot of thematic ideas together, aided in transitions, created a bigger emotional impact…but every time I explored putting music in the film, it rejected it. I had to stay out of the way of the simplicity and the bareness and the rawness because that’s the purse essence of the film. The film isn’t always going to do what you want it to do.”

I realized it then at the screening (and even more so now as I speak with her during our interview) that there’s an ever-present urgency with which she speaks about her work, and it comes through whether she’s holding a microphone thirty feet from you at a Q&A session or talking via cell phone some 400 miles away. She sometimes revisits topics we’d covered earlier in our interview, and some she felt like needed to expand upon just a bit more without a second thought. She isn’t being rude when she talks enthusiastically over me, she’s just having trouble keeping the ever-churning, gloriously enthusiastic ideas she has at bay.

When you speak with her, it’s clear that she’s focused on her words, how they’re coming out, indicating how tactfully she’s pulled from the sea of ideas that’s ever-present in her creative brain. These waters are not intimidating or fearsome, uninviting, or unnavigable; Veninger overflows with passion for her subjects, her work, her family, her craft—and at first glance it might look like she’s in over her head. That’s not the case, even in the slightest.

“It’s an exciting time to be an independent filmmaker,” she says. “We can make high quality work for very little money, and it’s really hard if you have no one championing and supporting you. You can’t do it by yourself.”

But, it’s the refined subtleties of Veninger’s films that make the struggle of being an independent filmmaker look like a breeze. She’s involved in all aspects of production on her films. She writes, she directs, and finds herself doing everything in between. She might not be able to do everything herself, but Canadian magazine Maclean’s has dubbed her the “Toronto’s reigning queen of DIY cinema” thanks to her extremely hands-on approach.

“DIY is like, doing it yourself with a village,” she says. “Film really becomes a living organism, and that’s really exciting to me…the push and pull of it, for me, is the essential practice of filmmaking, and it is a practice. You have to keep doing it. You can get out of shape really quickly. It’s a muscle.”

It’s this sort of attitude—facing the world army with a tiny village (usually a crew of 2 to 4 other people) on her side—that makes Veninger such a sensation in the independent film world. Her work feels refreshing in that it features characters you’d never see in a commercial Hollywood release.

She writes characters who are flawed, who are unabashedly themselves, who are real; but, they’re also all the more relatable for those reasons, and with The Animal Project, Veninger chooses to let them speak for themselves without much influence of the director’s hand, and the process of creating the film speaks to that.

The Animal Project is a rarity as a film and as a concept. Veninger says she knew she wanted to make a film in Toronto, where she lives, but she didn’t have any idea for a script when she set out to make the film. She contacted talent agencies throughout the city, met with 100 actors who were willing to blindly donate three months of their time to a project without a script, and whittled that group down to the final eight who appear in the film.  Once she had talent secured, she went off and wrote the script without the actors knowing who they’d be playing or what they’d be doing.

Her background as an actor (she has appeared in over 100 different projects) helped her connect with the group she’d assembled for The Animal Project, and exploring the dynamics of the unknown alongside the film’s talent was very important to her going into the film.

“It was kind of a test of faith. I wanted to take a leap into challenging myself in a different way. I wanted the creators, the actors, and the crew to take [the test] with me. If no one was with me, The Animal Project wouldn’t exist,” she says. “Some of the ideas in the film are about performance and about authenticity. Acting is about being truthful in the moment, but it’s also about lying. Actors are professional liars, and I really wanted this film to be raw in its performance. The actors are really naked up there, and being naked is a really important part of The Animal Project.”

The film is certainly a marvel for its uniqueness. There’s an ever-flowing emotional current running throughout the film, which follows a group of diverse characters as they embark on a new acting project (and bouts with self-discovery as a result) together, but that current is urgent without being pushy. Since the actors, characters, Veninger, and the audience are each jumping into this experiment together, it puts us all on the same plane. Everyone wins when they’re playing on one team, and Veninger has created a film that requires an equal amount of investment from all participants.

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“I took a leap into a process that was kind of irrational, but that I had an instinct about. The actors took a leap also, being full of fear, being quasi-trusting, and had an instinct about it being worthwhile. The characters took a similar leap in becoming part of The Animal Project, but do it and it’s irrational and it could fail and lead nowhere, but they do it. The audience is taking a leap into the film, too, as an audience watching something that’s irregular and odd and unconventional and shouldn’t really work, and hopefully it does in some way. That makes it feel original and fresh and exciting.”

Keeping things fresh and exciting might seem difficult for a director who’s seemingly played every role in front of and behind the camera. Veninger has been many things throughout the course of her career. She’s been a mother, a director, an actor, a producer, a spouse; and there are struggles that come with that. Taking time away from family wasn’t something she wants to do, so she finds ways to incorporate her personal life into her films. Her son, Jacob, has worked with her numerous times, including having a lead role in The Animal Project, while her daughter Hallie (who starred alongside Veninger in the brilliant i am a good person/i am a bad person) works as a costume designer on her mother’s features.

I love working with my family. They trust me. There’s a shorthand between us, whereas working with new people there’s always a process of ‘get to know you’ and resistance,” she says. “I respect [my kids] so much, especially working together, and then we have these amazing experiences of traveling to film festivals around the word, so it contributes to the family. My personal goal, especially as a woman, is to balance being a responsible parent, with holding a long-term relationship, and challenging myself as a filmmaker. There is a limit to how much I can push.”

It’s not like family is automatically a confine, though. Veninger is proof that a strong, creative voice can be the focus of a career. She just finds a way to meld it with her personal life, so her films become extensions of herself, and she’s not afraid to be herself in an industry that so often pretends like she–and her indie colleagues–aren’t there.

“I think [filmmaking] shares elements with being a parent. A director is a parent,” she says of sending her projects, her family, and her vision out into the world in film form. “You know, you have a kid and they want to wear something or they want to do something that is going to make them have a really tough time at school. You know if they just put on the nice little dress and wear the shiny shoes, they’ll be really accepted and loved and celebrated. When I was in Kindergarten there was some drawing assignment, and I can remember painting the sky magenta, and the teacher came by and said the sky has to be blue, and I really wanted to keep it magenta. Basically, my picture didn’t get put on the bulletin board of all the most beautiful pictures, and part of you just [tells yourself to] paint the sky blue and you’ll get on the board.”

Just don’t count on her to condone that perspective any time soon.

“In this age of bigger, stronger, faster, my impulse is to go smaller, simpler, truer,” she says of her work. “In this pace I feel like I want to slow down and retreat a little bit, making films in a very modest way for a little bit of money with a very small and tight creative group of people that I love and respect as opposed to going big or going home. That’s not my philosophy; it’s more about going inside and being as truthful as you can.”

Veninger’s earnesty is valuable. She’s not going against the grain for the sake of countering or subverting mainstream taste. In fact, she wants to connect with more people through her work instead of turning them away. There’s truly something for everyone in Veninger’s films. They’re arty and alternative, but not inaccessible, and with the Vimeo VOD release, the film will be available worldwide for everyone to consume. Casual moviegoers love for things to be easy, but the fact remains that Veninger faces an uphill battle as a female in a male-dominated field. She is proof, however, that great storytellers are women; her films are proof that female-driven narratives (with deep female characters who are agents of their own stories, mind you) exist, it’s just that the studios are reluctant to catch on.

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

The pUNK Films Femmes Lab

“I feel like in many films I’m seeing slivers of women, but I’m rarely seeing whole women, and women are really complex. I’m interested in the nooks and the cracks and the flaws and the people that are struggling,” she says. “Women who are struggling as mothers, as creators, as partners in their world are so much more interesting to me than seeing some sort of bullshit façade of someone that has their life together and is just kind of quirky and funny and quippy and cute and really hot in bed with flawless skin and isn’t constipated.”

Veninger validates her own stories and characters within herself, so she doesn’t need it from the industry at large. She does hope, however, that English-Canadian filmmakers can one day share a unique identity on the world stage.

“French-Canadian cinema does have its identity. We see what Xavier Dolan is doing in the world, we see what Jean-Marc Vallée has done previous to Dallas Buyer Club, and now he’s exploded. Quebec also has so many incredible women filmmakers,” she says. “English Canada, I think, from the international industry’s point of view is just seen as America. I mean in Cannes I was at a round table with a sales agent and I asked her if there’s any difference from [her] perspective between an English-Canadian film and an American film, and she said no. The challenge for English-Canadian film is if an international institute is going to acquire an English film, they tend to go toward the film with movie stars or names attached as directors, and that’s what Canadian films are competing against in terms of sales. We have to be even more original and even louder about the great films we make, and we have to really start fostering the appetite for our indigenous cinema inside our country.”

These aren’t just empty words merely hoping for advancement of the medium in her country. Aside from making films, she’s also busy putting female filmmakers to work with her pUNK Films Femmes Lab, a collaborative program that involves six female writer/directors from Canada working to create six feature scripts. The program has attracted interest from Oscar-winner Melissa Leo, who ponied up $6,000 for a first look at the scripts as the lab, which has its final meeting later this year, makes headway.

It all sounds like a bit much for one person to do, no? There’s beauty in the seemingly chaotic, overwhelming way of floating from project to project with such intensity, but she finds a way. The sea of ideas might be vast, and the sea of opposition from an industry that wants to set her out in a makeshift raft of sameness or slap labels onto what she does or where she comes from might make the waters a bit choppy, but if there’s anyone in the world who doesn’t need a paddle, it’s Ingrid Veninger.

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The Animal Project will open theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Tickets here: http://tiff.net/programming/new-releases/the-animal-project

On JUNE 6th, 2014, The Animal Project will be on iTunes throughout Canada here: https://itunes.apple.com/ca/movie/the-animal-project/id871991994

….and VIMEO VOD throughout the world, excluding Canada here: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theanimalproject

Watch the trailer here: http://theanimalprojectmovie.com/#watchTra

Visit http://www.punkfilms.ca/for more information on Ingrid’s work

Like The Animal Project on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/TheAnimalProjectMovie

Follow Ingrid Veninger on Twitter: @punkfilmsnow

Follow Joey Nolfi on Twitter: @joeynolfi

3 Important Things About Angelina’s $70 million Weekend

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1) For starters, Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent opening to $70 million at the US box-office tells us that Disney is leading the way with its female-centered narratives. It tells us that they’re a studio who never really lost sight of the female audience through the dark clouds of underrepresentation, releasing three uber-prominent films in recent years (Brave, Frozen, and now Maleficent) that feature female leads, and are in part made by women (Maleficent was written by Linda Woolverton, Frozen was co-directed by Jennifer Lee, Brave was co-directed by Brenda Chapman).

The only problem is that even a studio like Disney doesn’t have enough faith in a female director to give her sole control over a commercial blockbuster (animated or otherwise). Chapman and Lee co-directed their respective films, when an abundance of female artists crafted the rest of the film around them–everywhere from the costumes, to the makeup, to the scripts, to the songs that still linger in our heads and on radio airwaves some six month’s after Frozen‘s release. Disney is returning to a landscape they cornered: films–about women–that are universally appealing.

2) Next, it tells us that Angelina Jolie is one of the few remaining box-office stars of the contemporary era who has a consistent, proven ability to attract audiences. Maleficent opened to $100 million at the international box-office, which is huge. The film undoubtedly had a built-in audience (what tentpole doesn’t?) seeing as it’s directly related to another Disney film, but the studio instead chose to market the almost entirely around Jolie (just take a look at the minimalist poster) versus capitalizing on familiarity with Sleeping Beauty. It’s a film riding on the strengths of its star and not the other way around.

Without any disrespect to the talents of a star like Jennifer Lawrence, she’s the prime example of an actress whose appeal coincided with great roles that became box-office hits; The Hunger Games was not successful because of Jennifer Lawrence (nor was X-Men, nor American Hustle or Silver Linings Playbook). Jolie’s stardom will forever transcend any role she takes, and Maleficent is riding high on her appeal. Content transcends the star in so many of today’s blockbusters. Gone are the days when Will Smith or Johnny Depp could lead material that was equally as interesting as they were to new heights of monetary success based on their presence alone. The individual meant something. Instead, we now have material that sweeps its interchangeable stars up in a pre-established swirl of padded appeal. The fact that Jolie is a woman–and the fact that two of the five or so remaining box-office titans  are women (Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock)–speaks volumes about worldwide audience’s active support for stories about women.

3) Lastly, it tells us that the divide between audiences and critics is completely meaningless as film critics lose sight of their duties. Critics, as a whole, dismissed Maleficent as ho-hum, and the conversation on Twitter and Facebook (the “internet court”, as I call it) quickly focused on that because it’s easy to. 140 characters don’t do the middle ground any favors; social media has turned us into a culture of white and black with little (or no) grey area. Maleficent was either going to soar or fail; when the initial reviews came in, the film was deemed a complete embarrassment by the internet court; no one cared that a woman was given the chance to headline a summer blockbuster (when was the last time that happened?). Film critics have forgotten their responsibilities. In a film landscape that repeatedly denies women their due behind and in front of the camera, Maleficent is a marvel for relying on the appeal of its female star and for telling a story revolving around female characters when the industry around it constantly shows us that this is anything but typical. If the film critics don’t make this the conversation, who will?

Sure, you can point to other female-driven blockbusters as indicators of the rising prominence of female stars, but those films (namely The Hunger Games series) and their stars don’t fit in with the discussion about Maleficent or box-office stars for a few reasons:

1) The Hunger Games film series is a Young Adult adaptation, meaning it has a pre-established audience regardless of the actress in the lead role, which means its success cannot be attributed to Jennifer Lawrence. Maleficent had a connection to another beloved Disney classic working in its favor, but there’s no way casual affection for an animated version of Sleeping Beauty translated to $170 million in worldwide ticket sales for a different (live-action) film all on its own.

2) The Hunger Games was not initially marketed on Jennifer Lawrence’s appeal, simply because she wasn’t a superstar when the first film was released. Sure, she had Winter’s Bone (and subsequent Oscar nomination) under her belt, but she had no proven track record as a box-office draw. The film could have starred anyone and still found success. A true star-driven film relies on the power of its star’s ability to transcend the role and bring people in to see them and the movie. Jennifer Lawrence’s presence in The Hunger Games merely coincided with the already-proven success of the book series. It would have taken off with or without her.

Maleficent is a film that rests almost entirely on Jolie’s shoulders. It has always been her film to carry. Disney marketed Angelina Jolie over Maleficent, whereas Lionsgate initially pushed The Hunger Games over Jennifer Lawrence until their self-made circle of stardom churned Lawrence out as a megastar.

Lawrence’s career undoubtedly skyrocketed after the first Hunger Games film, but it is the franchise that created her, whereas Maleficent’s circle of success begins with–and carries on–with Angelina Jolie at the head.

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The same things we’re saying about Maleficent can be said about Salt–again, another summer blockbuster starring Jolie–because Jolie was marketed by herself as the sole reason for people to see the film. The public seems to like Jolie much better when she’s the sole draw. Even The Tourist (which wasn’t an abysmal box-office failure) faltered a bit because Jolie’s presence wasn’t compartmentalized from other aspects of the film. She’s sort of an all-or-nothing star when it comes to attracting audiences; if the focus is on her, audiences are intrigued. She doesn’t work well as an accessory.

Jolie has proven herself as a vital component, and the success of Maleficent (as well as her upcoming sophomore directorial effort) solidifies her as a star to champion as an integral part of the feminist film movement whether she’s actively going for that or not.

The fact remains that Maleficent‘s $70 million weekend shouldn’t be telling us, as audience members, anything. Female-centered narratives should be the norm and not the headlineThe people who should be learning something from Maleficent’s $70 million domestic weekend are the studio heads. After all, they’re the ones with the ability to change the landscape and make Maleficent the rule and not the exception. We, as audiences, also have a duty; let’s hold up our end of the bargain and focus on the rarity that is Maleficent, and allow it to serve as a the sturdiest foundation for a new wave of female characters we’ve seen in quite some time.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Oscar Season Diary #11: Will ‘Maleficent’ Shatter Angelina’s ‘Unbroken’ Year?

The Academy is all about patting itself on the back.

Its membership advocates for the individual, whittling down category after category until one soul is left standing in the carnage with a gold weapon and a bloody PR trail behind them. The Academy has its favorites, it has its darlings, and it most certainly values its opinion as the sole Gospel of popular cinema. Time and time again, we see repeat winners in the “lesser” categories (just ask Edith Head, Colleen Atwood, or Leon Shamroy), and even some in the more prominent ones (refer to Meryl Streep, Hilary Swank, and Ang Lee). Singularity is recognized. Stars and icons shine through the soupy sameness of everyone else at the Oscars.

The film industry, however, is gradually shifting away from the individual and toward the collective. Franchises and young adult adaptations have replaced movie stars as genuine box-office draws. The business has always been to make money. The masses are the target. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in an over-sharing, over-entitled society, the quality of what it means to truly be a star with massive pull rides on your shareability.

Shareability is an old creature that’s evolved into a full-fledged monster in the contemporary era. Trade publications have always attempted to bring the stars to the people, but it’s only today that the people can take control of stars by more than just speaking through dollars spent at the box-office. It’s undeniable that we’re living in the age of the “darling.” We don’t have movie stars. We have Jennifer Lawrence, whose ability to generate fodder for BuzzFeed articles and user-made, crowd-shared .gifs becomes a more valuable commodity than a powerhouse skill set. The woman is talented, but it’s our consumption of the superficial aspects of her persona that make her a consistent, comfortable, warm personality, not a movie star. The dynamism simply isn’t there.

Angelina Jolie, perhaps the last remaining titan of the box-office, is in a unique position as a star who’s pulled back from her earlier days as a tabloid spectacle yet maintains a high profile. Her latest film, Maleficent, is her first live-action role in nearly four years, and is set for release this Friday. Six months later, her sophomore directorial feature, Unbroken, will hit theaters. She has the rare pleasure of starring in a summer tentpole and directing a historical biopic that’s destined for awards season gold. She is the star and she’s in control of two separate films that have the potential to shape the rest of her career in monumental ways.

She’s proof that the public wants to consume stories by, about, and starring individual women (or maybe just starring her), though she’s built a career for herself based on her physical appeal to men. She’s never been in a Best Picture winner or nominee, though she has one Oscar under her belt (as well as one other nomination), but still her popularity within the industry is difficult to gauge. Despite her titanic star power and popularity with the masses, Angelina Jolie faces a different struggle for legitimacy in the eyes of the Academy when it comes time to recognize her work behind the lens; despite her accomplishments, she’ll be held to the standards of a fading movie star whether that’s what she is or not.

On one hand, Maleficent represents everything that’s driving the film industry into the ground. It’s a huge summer blockbuster with a bloated budget riding on the bankability of a star who was unbreakable six or seven years ago, but who’s ability to solely headline a $180 million picture on the contemporary front has yet to be proven.

We’ve watched the likes of Johnny Depp (multiple times), Will Smith, Tom Cruise, Ryan Reynolds, and Channing Tatum crash expensive films into the flop-laden abyss over the course of the past year. It’s nearly impossible for a sole individual to carry a picture these days, yet studios keep pushing the men and their guns to the forefront in the hopes that something sticks.

It seems glaringly obvious that it’s women (like Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock) who can drive a film to box-office gold on name alone. McCarthy and Bullock did it twice in one year (together with The Heat and individually with Identity Thief and Gravity, respectively). The difference with those films is that no one expected them to make as much money as they did; everyone is expecting—even banking the future of female-driven films—on whether or not Angelina Jolie can have her cake and eat it too.

The pressure is certainly on for Jolie, but her bankability isn’t the only thing at stake; her status as dynamic representative of a well-rounded industry force is as well. If Maleficent fails (let’s say by studio standards that means earning less than $40 million in the US in its first weekend), it’ll be attributed solely to her. The recent failures of big-budget films are almost unanimously attributed to their stars, even though these films exist and are pushed as star vehicles when the industry around them simply doesn’t foster a climate where the star is an entity any longer.

It’s easier to sell a franchise based on a young adult novel or a sequel to the latest Spider-Man on familiarity alone. American films capitalize on the pop culture relevance of broader entities (Marvel, DC, Godzilla, family animation, etc.) versus stars. Star personas benefit the individual, not the films as a whole.

Where does that put Angelina Jolie in terms of Oscar season? Let us not forget, box-office matters for women at the Oscars. Bridesmaids would never have found its way into the race without a gross of nearly $200 million domestic. Women have to prove themselves to Oscar voters with a set of gorgeous legs (ripe for the sexualizing) that carry them to box-office gold as well. Disney mounted a healthy campaign behind Maleficent, which crescendoed into a dull roar over the course of a year or so. It’s a film that has a firm, pre-established base of fantasy fans and Disney aficionados alike, and one that can easily rope in families (it’s rated PG) and Jolie fans (she’s the clear focus of the studio’s marketing campaign) together. 

If you’re calculating Unrboken’s potential appeal to Oscar voters, it’s a checkmark in every category. Beautiful, previously-decorated member of The Academy in the director’s chair? Yep. Written by past Oscar winners (and Academy darlings of popular adult cinema) Joel & Ethan Coen? Uh-huh. War drama with a male-driven narrative that’s based on historically-rooted, wartime events? You bet. Much like The Hurt Locker, the film is the kind of picture the Academy wants to see a woman direct; one about men overcoming obstacles in a macho-man setting. Unlike The Hurt Locker, however, its appeal is broad and (presumably) free of controversial material that would implicate any aspect of American culture (God forbid).

You simply can’t get any more Oscar-friendly than Unbroken. After the Academy pulled their version of a “radical shift” in tone for Best Picture, they’ll actively seek out something that falls in line with tradition to offset the divisiveness of 12 Years a Slave. The entire industry objectified Steve McQueen’s film as “the one about slavery,” and fixated upon its racial implications versus seeing what was underneath versus acting based on a casual glance. Unbroken is Academy meat and potatoes. It’ll be fantastic, plug-and-play, make truckloads of cash, and establish Jolie as the sole woman in a race dominated by men.

There are whispers here and there about the performances Jolie was able to get out of her cast as well. Miyavi, in particular, who plays the film’s antagonist, is receiving a great deal of pre-release buzz. Films like Unbroken, as of late, have an almost surefire chance of being recognized in the acting categories, especially when there’s a nice, meaty, showy role for an evil male character. Christoph Waltz won for his role as a Nazi officer in Inglourious Basterds, as did Forest Whitaker for playing notoriously vile Ugandan President Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Heath Ledger collected a posthumous Oscar for playing the diabolical Joker in The Dark Knight, and Javier Bardem saw gold on Oscar night for his role as a sinister hitman in No Country for Old Men. Miyavi plays Matsuhiro Watanabe, war criminal and abuser of POWs, which gives him ample opportunity to milk Oscar voters with theatrics and lots and lots of yelling.

If the performances in Unbroken are Oscar-worthy, it will only help Jolie’s case in the Best Director category. It’ll be no surprise if buzz picks up for other members of the film’s cast once the film opens, as Jolie will likely be able to connect with them as an actor herself. The film also has cinematographer Roger Deakins on board, who has an astounding 11 Oscar nominations without a single win. He’s at the point where he’s getting into the race on name alone (hence his nomination for the critically divisive, un Academy-friendly Prisoners just last year), and this could be his year to collect his career Oscar for his work on Unbroken.

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Any way you look at it, Unbroken is a glimmering piece of Oscar bait—and perhaps the smartest thing Angelina Jolie has done in her career—waiting to drop right into the Academy’s lap. The Academy will see an opportunity to help carry Jolie’s career beyond the front of the camera and into a successful one behind it into her later years. They couldn’t give themselves a more self-congratulatory pat on the back than by decorating her for Best Director or her film for Best Picture. What better way to complete their self-made circle than to turn their sexy, objectified, Oscar-winning action star into a sexy, Oscar-winning filmmaker?

It’s poised for success, but if Maleficent bursts, Unbroken will endure the barrage of shrapnel. Jolie’s second directorial effort (the first is the little-seen, poorly-received In the Land of Blood and Honey) comes plated with hater-proof armor. Unbroken is ready for the Oscar battle, but it’s not ready to withstand the stigma around the “Jolie falls short of expectations with Maleficent” type of headlines. The internet machine is waiting to pick at the carcasses of anything that unravels for any reason. Again, box-office and perceived “success” is extremely integral for women in the film industry. They’re taken seriously when they make films about men that make money, or films with broad appeal that make money. Maleficent will carve Jolie’s path to (and through) the Oscars.

It’s unfair that Jolie’s appeal to the white male Oscar voter will be predicated largely by her sex appeal, which she has distinctly tried to de-commodify as she’s deliberately pulled herself out of the spectacle of the tabloid circus; it will either help her or hurt her—especially with the Director’s branch of the Academy and the Directors Guild of America, both of whom are never kind to actors turned directors (just ask Robert Redford).

Jolie will also have to deal with the Kathryn Bigelow effect. The majority of white male Oscar voters will view Jolie’s gender as the defining characteristic of her awards season run. The “been there, done that” mentality will kick in, they’ll remember that Kathryn Bigelow was their posterchild for gender acceptance, and not feel obligated to vote for Angelina because the conquest has already been had.

As usual, Jolie has everything working in her favor at the moment, and she’s heading into the Oscar race with a powerful army of elements working in her favor. Unbroken seems painfully obvious as an early-season frontrunner for an Academy that likes to stroke its own ego. How easily, though, the perfect exterior could tumble down with one fell swoop of the American public and where they choose to place their dollars this weekend.

Whether Maleficent lives or dies and whether Unbroken sustains its potential through to Oscar night is still up in the air, but if her career has shown us anything at all it’s that she’s the star, and the conversation will be—and always been—about Angelina Jolie.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Cannes…from the Heart of an Outsider

Leila Hatami, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet

An American boy on the sands of Cannes, France: that’s how I’d imagined myself ever since I was seven (maybe eight?) years old, yearning for transcontinental air travel and a responsible adult to accompany me to the grandest of the world’s film festivals.

It’s a rather odd dream for a child to want to travel to a small town that comes alive in the international spotlight only once a year to celebrate an art that’s far beyond his comprehension. It’s also rather selfish. What the kid in me didn’t understand was that spending thousands of dollars of your hard-earned coin to relish in the best that world cinema has to offer benefits little more than the airline, taxi service, and bellhop who carries your bags. Casual Cannes-goers ultimately mean nothing in the grand scheme of the festival circuit, where moneymaking is all that’s left for anyone in an industry that–when it comes down to the life and death of it–could disappear off the face of the earth with little more than a monetary crater in its wake.

I don’t think, in the early months of 1997, my little brain even knew who Ang Lee was. If you would’ve asked me to sit through LA Confidential or Funny Games, I’d have told you I wasn’t allowed to see R-rated movies. The understanding of film, however, is an ever-evolving entity, and Cannes fosters an appreciation for the various perspectives in film that make it such a diverse, captivating industry.

But, how characteristic of a child is it to yearn after the flashiest, most sensational aspects of something you don’t quite understand? I wanted nothing more than to be a part of the machine that makes Cannes tick. The stars are out in full red carpet glamor, the journalists buzz about, the businessmen shake hands and exchange their millions.

Of course, Cannes is all about business, too. Just today, a $20 million deal for a film was inked by Paramount for Amy Adams-starrer Story of Your Life. There are deals here and deals there, as beautiful films from the brightest artists still come with a hefty price tag.

I can now read about who purchased what or who thought what about which film in the trade papers, but the fact remains that I am now, and always have been, a Cannes outsider. The way I view Cannes is filtered through the lens of those in attendance, and the type of coverage I could  be giving from my cramped, wood-paneled bedroom only speaks to my career aspirations that may or may not come at a later date; most bloggers like me only have the luxury of covering other coverage when it comes to festivals like Cannes or Toronto or Telluride. I’m either building a foundation to get paid to write about Cannes–from Cannes– in the future, or I’m wasting my time on a ship that will never set sail. Either way, I’m not there now.

But, that’s the flaw of living in the quick-fix film industry of today. It’s all rather infantile, really. We’re told that we all matter. My desire to cover Cannes without being there is difficult, but Hollywood consistently pushes each of us up the ranks of self-importance. We’re told that our dollar is worth spending on every tentpole that comes out. We’re pushed en masse to the theater, encouraged to tweet our reactions, to wear the t-shirt, to rep the brand for free under the guise of engaging in an elite sort of fandom; though, when it comes down to it, we’re all outsiders to the heart of the industry that beats at a place like Cannes. We lose sight of that from time to time, so perhaps it’s best if some things are left to the protected, sacred mystery of exclusivity.

Though, it’s funny how in such a fast-paced, easily-accessible world, we can still feel so disconnected from something as widely-covered as the Cannes Film Festival. There’s only so much a review of the opening night film or a photo of the crowds lined up to see the day’s most buzzed-about feature can do to satiate one’s yearning to be there. It’s difficult to put your finger on just what makes the festival so alluring, but it has got to be something, because the appeal is wide.

Cannes draws celebrities, filmmakers, publicists, and businesspeople from around the globe; the jury that decides the recipient of the festival’s top prize (the Palme d’Or) this year is made up of Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, Nicolas Winding Refn, Leila Hatami, and Willem Dafoe among others; essentially a mishmash of someone from here, someone from there and everywhere in between.

The films in and out of competition represent diverse artists above all else. They have a place there because their films matter. They’re different. They’re things we haven’t seen before. They’re not bogged down with spandex, capes, and cheap romantic subplots.

There are films from established directors, and films from people we haven’t seen much from before. In that sense, Cannes makes insiders of the outsiders and places them on the same plane of presentation as the big boys, giving them a stage for the rest of us to see at some point down the line when the hoopla of the festival has withered away and all we’re left with is a remote and a subscription service with On-Demand capabilities.

It’s the job of the journalists at the festival, then, to make Cannes really mean something in the moment. We’ll all be invited to the party of opinion at some point, but these are the people who travel–sometimes on their own dime–to the waters of Southern France all for the sake of seeing, posting about, and championing films that will likely make it stateside within a few short months. These people sacrifice their sleep, sanity, and time, but it’s really a donation of all those things when you look at the big picture; world cinema–often under-appreciated in large markets like the US–is covered. It’s truly covered (in every sense of the word) by the hordes of writers who pack the screening rooms day after day and present their impressions to readers. Why? Because they’re the insiders who’ve been chosen to make it known. The prestigious torch is theirs to carry. They have a responsibility to promote the art in a climate that fosters the desire for spectacle versus creativity. They can’t afford to lose sight of the types of films that are shown at Cannes.

The journalists, while heralding films of worth, can also destroy the stragglers of the pack. Just yesterday we witnessed the downfall (more like the kick while it was already down, following a nasty dispute over final cut between Harvey Weinstein and director Olivier Dahan) of Grace of Monaco, the festival’s opening night film, which didn’t seem very Cannes-y in the first place. Still, the film’s stars (namely Nicole Kidman) and creators showed their faces, gave interviews, and upheld the tradition of a Cannes insider.

For most of us, all we’ll ever be to Cannes is someone hovering around the perimeter, holding out our basket, hoping to be thrown a few scraps here and there. We won’t show our films at special screenings, we won’t know how the sunlight hits our faces through the flash of paparazzi bulbs, how the salt air of the Mediterranean Sea wafts over the crowds waiting for the morning’s first screening. We won’t know how the wine tastes at the cafe around the corner from the best screening room. We won’t know what it’s like to be shut out of a screening because our press pass hasn’t been upgraded to “pink” from the standard “blue.”

We will always know, however, what it’s like to consume. Isn’t that the goal of it all, when you break it down? The filmmakers, the artists, the studios, the stars; each of them are vying for our consumption of their product.

We outsiders know nothing about the actual experience of Cannes, yet reap so much from it as these consumers. The kinds of films that have been shown and championed at Cannes rarely ride their glory all the way through to Oscar season, but the esteem is enough to last a lifetime. Tracking Oscar potential at Cannes is to miss the point entirely, though. Correlation is tricky to pinpoint, and it doesn’t matter. The Oscars have their ideology (and are a preservation of adult and art films in their own right), and Cannes has its own. Cannes is a celebration, a showcase, a hand on the ticker of the industry propelling world’s artists forward as they come together to say “look at what we can do,” and so we do just that. We obey, and we look on.

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I’m lucky now to be older, wiser, and more aware than my 7-year old self to know the whys, the ins, and the outs of why I want to be there in the first place: to experience that magical confluence of minds, talents, and to get swept up in the waves of collective appreciation shone from the world stage.

That’s something else I didn’t understand as a kid; the importance of Cannes across so many mediums speaks to the unison the art of cinema promotes. People spend thousands of dollars just to be there in the moment, in the magic of it all. People watch multiple movies–back to back–each day, writing about them in rented flats, cramped hotel rooms, and buzzing cafes.

People travel across oceans and trek mountains for the movies.

Though I can now experience the festival after sifting through journalist’s Instagram accounts, festival hashtags on Twitter, and hourly updates on the trade sites, I am still there secondhand, and that menas I’m not really there.

Cannes is a cloistered shell with pearls on the inside. Its mystery and allure are prestigious, and a great way to pinpoint the art we often lose track of. The exclusivity keeps the world’s eye on the prize. It elevates film to the level of the all-important instead of demeaning it to the easily-accessible. The films are challenging, complex, and fueled by creative passion from international perspectives, but at the end of the day, we’re all watching movies; alas, that’s the point–Cannes is so magical because it’s not about simply seeing a film, it’s about watching them and looking out for the ones that matter, because they often find a home there. We’ll all get that chance sooner or later.

So, as I sit here, some thousands of miles away from Cannes, I take pleasure in looking forward to upholding my end of the bargain when I buy my ticket to Foxcatcher or Maps to the Stars in a few months. It’s all about grasping the thread when it passes by, and I trust everyone at Cannes to push it in my direction.

We must trust that Cannes is one of the few remaining treasures left for world cinema. We trust that the filmmakers, artists, journalists, and insiders value the preservation of this congregation, that despite business deals and publicity, the fruit of the labor isn’t measured in such petty terms. They’re there for the art, for the treat of inclusivity, for the treat of being there when it all happens. They’d better enjoy it after all; they’ve moved across mountains and oceans to get there.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Is There Beauty in the Breakdown of Race at the Oscars?

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While TIME Magazine gears up for its annual 100 Most Influential People issue—one that features politicians, artists, women who made a difference for women, minorities overcoming the plight of inequality—People magazine is sticking to its guns, reporting on stories about “Every Selfie Anna Kendrick Has Ever Taken” to crowning Lupita Nyong’o as the Most Beautiful Person in the World.

It’s an amazing thing to see a woman with dark skin on the cover of a magazine circulating in a predominantly-white culture. Movies are white-obsessed, the very Academy Awards that bestowed an Oscar upon Nyong’o for her role in 12 Years a Slave—the first film “about” slavery to win Best Picture—is white-washed (94%, to be exact), and our collective desire last year was to see this sort of overturning of the status quo become the status quo.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s easy to see that 12 Years a Slave is not the sort of groundbreaking film we all so desperately want it to be. It was objectified for its racial components (albeit for a positive cause) and, while still a perfectly acceptable, appropriate choice for the Academy, their decision could impact how future films about black characters fare at the Oscars (i.e., the “been there, done that” mentality might come into play.)

Some might say that Nyong’o, however, is a trailblazer. She’s breaking barriers within an industry that has tipped in the favor of the young, white, male actor. In an age where Pharrell is recontextualizing the image of Marilyn Monroe for his latest single cover and films like 12 Years a Slave are winning Best Picture at the Oscars, it should be obvious that the tide is turning in favor of the minority voice, but it just doesn’t feel that way.

The fact remains that, by awarding 12 Years a Slave Best Picture, the Academy essentially fulfilled a circular, pre-constructed prophecy that was waiting in the wings, bound to be completed whenever it was most appropriate. After films about minorities like The Color Purple and Brokeback Mountain missed out on a gold-laden party, accusations of bigotry within the Academy intensified. It reached a head this year, with outside pressure mounting as the Black New Wave movement saw the release of three high-profile films from black directors (Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, in addition to 12 Years a Slave) take the awards race by storm. Timing is everything.

86 years of black filmmakers taking a backseat to the white pictures, directors, and actors resulted in a monumental Best Picture victory for Steve McQueen’s period drama about Solomon Northrup, a free black man from the north who was kidnapped and sold into the southern slave trade. It’s a film with real-world implications for both Hollywood and American society. Racism is not a historical fantasy; it exists in every corner of the nation, and the minority is so often stifled in the film industry.

It’s clear that the Academy never really warms up to films laced with controversy, and 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront these issues and shouldn’t have to apologize for its mere existence because it doesn’t make the whole thing look pretty. Yet, all you’d hear coming out of industry parties was that Academy members weren’t watching 12 Years a Slave because it was difficult to sit through. Its members shy away from controversy and gravitate toward crowd-pleasing fare, and it’s difficult to please the majority when whips, flesh, blood, and the implications of modern racial inequality are looming over Academy members’ shoulders as they vote.

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The Academy heeded the pressure to make a monument out of the past Oscar year; 12 Years a Slave was a headline. It was the first “black” film, directed by a black director, starring a predominantly-black cast, to win the Best Picture Oscar. The white voting majority took it upon themselves to so graciously lower their standards, and they heeded outside pressure to award the film a compensatory win for every Do The Right Thing, Precious, or The Color Purple that slipped through the cracks.

Nyong’o’s arc of success rode similar superficial waves. She was consistently played up as a “fashion icon” on the red carpet. Her dresses became the conversation; the bright colors were the distraction from the brutal situation her character endured. She became an image instead of a person. She was the beautiful red carpet fixture being asked about her dresses versus the preparation she had to do for the role or how difficult it must have been to play the part of a woman who endured the hardships of slavery in real life. The conversation always turned to who she was wearing, her charm, her pizazz, how beautiful she is while the boys discussed the craft. That’s all empty, fading praise, just like the cover of a magazine celebrating exterior beauty. It’s almost as if the film and its cast had to distract the industry from the stigma of being “too difficult to watch” that the film had taken on, and Nyong’o’s People Magazine cover is still a ripple in that pond.

The fact remains that 12 Years a Slave did not succeed based on the votes of an equal Academy voting base. There are far more men than women, far more white voters than there are from any other race, and far more older people than there are younger. 12 Years a Slave found a way to appeal to the white majority. The accomplishment will come when the black filmmakers are able to reap the same benefits that white actors do after winning an Oscar.

This year’s cover of People magazine’s Most Beautiful issue hasn’t entirely missed the mark, however. It does celebrate women and diversity, namely select women who’ve made a difference in the film industry over the course of the past year.

The cover itself also features two women over 40 (Julia Roberts and Juliana Margulies) alongside Jennifer Lawrence, who’s a female movie star proving that:

1) While the age of the true movie star is dying, actresses like Lawrence and Sandra Bullock can still drive box-office and headline films almost single-handedly

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2) That women can drive a film to the top-earning domestic spot at the yearly box-office (Catching Fire took in over $400 million in the US alone, while Frozen grossed over $1 billion globally)

But, what are the long-lasting implications for a woman like Nyong’o, who can lay claim to such a title bestowed by People, yet go home to a script pile that’s nowhere near as bountiful as the one Jennifer Lawrence gets to pour over?

I’d love to see Nyong’o get as many magazine covers as she can, but “Fashion Icon” and “Most Beautiful Woman” are fading titles. What Nyong’o needs is a casting director willing to take what the rest of the industry would consider being a risk by placing her in a high-profile role originally intended for a white actor (or even a man). What Nyong’o needs is work. She doesn’t need frivolous praise; she endured it enough on the red carpet.

The cover is an accomplishment and a step in the right direction. Visibility is visibility, and that’s key to changing the standard. My gripe is not with the magazine itself, but with the industry at large. Nyong’o is being heralded as the “It” black girl, as if there’s only one to choose from. Bigger changes need to happen before we can find solace and comfort in her presence on the cover.

The awards cycle has turned Nyong’o and 12 Years a Slave into is a flavor of the moment. Flavors fade. The next black film to come along will likely be shunned by Oscar voters because they’ve been there and done that with 12 Years a Slave. So, will the People magazine cover matter after she’s taken the inevitable Halle Berry route post-Oscar? Or will the roles open up to her? Will she get the chance to headline prominent films originally intended for white actresses? Will a studio have the balls to change a script–alter character, race, and gender–to fit her in, to give her a chance, to truly make her Oscar mean something?

Could Lupita Nyong’o be the next Ellen Ripley?

Absolutely: whether the industry around her is ready and willing to foster such a thing remains to be seen.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi

Fishing for Feminism with Sofia Coppola’s “The Little Mermaid”

sofia-coppola-chateau-marmont-roomreporterDeadline Hollywood reported Tuesday that Oscar-winning writer-director Sofia Coppola is in final negotiations to helm a live-action interpretation of The Little Mermaid.

The news comes on the heels of one of the most forward-thinking collective votes the Academy Awards have ever seen. 12 Years a Slave triumphed as the year’s Best Picture, appealing to the white voters’ taste—a taste that had chosen only one female for Best Director, no films about slavery or directed by a black person for Best Picture, and overwhelmingly chose white actors and actresses for top honors in the acting categories since its inception nearly 90 years ago. 

Diversity—and the celebration of it—is not, at least from any discernable pattern, the Academy’s cup of tea.

That doesn’t mean it’s an inherent, natural part of the Academy’s complexion, or that it’s a conscious decision by the Academy’s 6,000 (and growing) membership to shun minorities of gender and race.

One thing is clear, however: the industry is angry.

We’re experiencing a wave of reactionary movement pushing for the greater presence of women and racial minorities in the industry. There’s a hunger that permeates the discussion about women and minorities in film. Trade publications, Oscar bloggers, and women directors themselves are voicing their frustration with the glaring lack of female hands behind the lens and the wafer-thin opportunities and stories built around the ones in front of it.

The reactionary feminism and reactionary support of the New Black Wave trio (Steve McQueen, Lee Daniels, and Ryan Coogler) last year is persistent, ever-present, and urgent. It’s angry, in a sense. Enough is enough and, as 12 Years a Slave’s campaign spelled out for us quite literally near the end of awards season, it’s time for change.

I imagine many of this year’s Oscar voters found themselves at a crossroads between personal preference and moral obligation.

Preference seemed to tip in the favor of Gravity, a film with a narrative that’s driven solely by a female character played by an over-40 actress who consistently proves her might as a box-office draw in the age of the fading bankability of stars in general. Gravity garnered widespread critical acclaim, recognition from top Oscar precursors (including DGA, Golden Globe, and PGA), and titanic worldwide ticket sales totaling over $700 million.

12 Years a Slave emerged early in the race as a game-changer. Touted as the Best Picture winner as far back as Telluride, it’s the first film with a predominantly black cast (directed by a black filmmaker, about the “black” perspective during slavery) to ever win Best Picture, albeit decorated by a predominantly-white voting base.

While either outcome would have been historic in its own right, 12 Years a Slave will ride the next few years as the defining film for black filmmakers at the Oscars. It will be the volleying point for voters in the future who will turn away at the next black film to enter the race because it’ll all be so “been there, done that.”

The one thing 12 Years a Slave did by winning was not only to cement itself as the crowning black achievement in the eyes of a white majority, it also became an endpoint for these films, at least for the immediate future

The Academy listened to industry pressure and defied all statistical precursors that by all means should have put the Best Picture Oscar in Gravity’s court. 12 Years a Slave won by default as the sole objectified race picture of the year (The Butler and Fruitvale Station were nowhere to be found when Oscar nominations rolled around).

It’s “equality” by default, but that’s not enough.

The numbers speak for themselves, and audiences respond to diversity in a way that’s not as overt as the journalistic narrative seems to make it out to be.

While we’re still seeing male-driven, top-heavy blockbusters dominate the box-office, there’s no denying the impact women are having on American audiences. Let’s take a look at films which opened to over $35 million in weekend sales from last year:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    Insidious Chapter 2 – $40.2 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    The Wolverine – $53 million
▪    Despicable Me 2 – $83 million
▪    Monsters University – $82.4 million
▪    Man of Steel – $116.6 million
▪    Fast & Furious 6 – $117 million
▪    Star Trek Into Darkness – $70.2 million
▪    Iron Man 3 – $174.1 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    G.I. Joe: Retaliation – $40.5 million
▪    The Croods – $43.6 million
▪    Oz The Great and Powerful – $79.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million
▪    World War Z – $66.4 million
▪    The Hangover Part III – $41.7 million
▪    The Great Gatsby – $50.1 million
▪    Thor: The Dark World – $85.7 million
▪    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – $158.1 million
▪    Frozen – $67.4 million
▪    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – $73.6 million

If we remove sequels, family/animation films, and superhero/adaptation films, we’re left with original stories:

▪    Gravity – $55.8 million
▪    The Conjuring – $41.9 million
▪    Oblivion – $37.1 million
▪    Identity Thief – $34.6 million
▪    The Heat – $39.1 million

Only one relied on the box-office power of its male star (Tom Cruise in Oblivion) to open a large number. The others? Driven largely by their appeal to women or appeal because of women. The Conjuring featured two strong central female characters (Vera Farmiga, Lili Taylor) in a genre that largely skews female, Identity Thief hit it big solely because of Melissa McCarthy’s presence, while her appeal combined with Sandra Bullock’s presence in The Heat propelled it to box-office success as well. What else do these four films have in common? They’re all films with original screenplays and successful gross to budget ratios (Gravity being the best opener. Go figure, with a woman pushing 50).

Merely winning an Oscar or driving box-office doesn’t give credence to an underrepresented group. Such films will remain the fluke until internal, structural change occurs. The importance of a stage like the Oscars for films like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave lies in the Oscar’s existence as a stage for visibility.  The award itself is essentially inferior–a golden statue is meaningless in the face of inequality. The award is a golden man, after all.

Reactionary feminism in the industry seems to have brought about a greater consciousness—the narrative is there. It’s in the trade papers, it’s on the Oscar blogs, it’s coming straight from the mouths of female filmmakers and producers themselves in even more easily-accessible mediums (Lena Dunham and Ava DuVernay on Twitter, Shonda Rhimes speaking out about her DGA “Diversity Award”).

So, then, is Universal’s decision to tap Coppola’s talents affirmative of a consciousness of inequality —similar to the Academy’s, which won 12 Years a Slave Best Pictureor merely a studio seeking the most appropriate talent for the job?

Let’s hope for the latter.

Coppola of course won her first Oscar for writing 2003’s brilliant Lost in Translation. She continued as the Oscar successor to her father, Francis Ford Coppola, who’d previously won a slew of Oscars for The Godfather and its first sequel. Not only did Coppola’s win for Best Original Screenplay cement her family as a budding dynasty (her brother is a small-time producer and director, while her niece, Gia, preps to release her first film as director this year), it also placed added another female to the roster of winners in a non-makeup, non-hairstyling, non-costume design craft category that women seem to have a greater chance of winning in.

Lost-In-Translation-scarlett-johansson-23676554-1060-565Since 1940, when the award was first introduced, eight women (including Coppola) have won the award: Muriel Box, Sonya Levien, Nancy Dowd, Pamela Wallace, Callie Khouri, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola, and Diablo Cody. In the Adapted Screenplay category, seven women (Frances Marion, Sarah Y. Mason, Claudine West, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Emma Thompson, Philippa Boyens, and Diana Ossana) have won the award since its inception in 1928. Only one woman (Ruth Prawer Jhabvala) has repeated a win here.

The Academy (and the industry in general) seems to throw women away once they’ve fulfilled their duties as object of the industry or Academy’s participation in the overarching social narrative. A black film wins Best Picture, another one won’t win for 20 years (let’s check back in 2024, shall we?). Kathryn Bigelow wins Best Director, and she’s snubbed for her vastly superior Zero Dark Thirty a mere three years later.

Jane Campion, Callie Khouri, Diablo Cody (fellow female winners in the Best Original Screenplay category) have achieved minor successes in their own right, but none has matched the rapidity of release (she averages about one film every three years).

Coppola has taken an alternate route, however, than most men have after they win an Oscar. A win in this category generally either compliments the upward trajectory of men who win it (Joel & Ethan Coen), or turn a budding male career into a powerhouse of future hits (Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen). In short, men who win the award have a much greater chance of actually using the prestige of visibility to bolster longevity in the field.

Unlike other women filmmakers who’ve garnered acclaim from the Academy in this category, Coppola has gone on to have a generally high-profile and sustained career. Though none of her subsequent films have generated as much praise, respect, or box-office as Lost in Translation, her follow-up, 2006’s Marie-Antoinette won an Oscar itself, while 2010’s Somewhere and 2013’s The Bling Ring rode the festival buzz machines and played well—if to less-than overwhelming box-office—with critics and audiences alike. She consistently works with big-name talent, and her reputation and stance in the industry has waned little despite her films’ underperforming ticket sales.

Coppola’s attachment to The Little Mermaid speaks to the faith studios have in the quality of her work, and it shows that they’re paying attention to her work and applying it to suitable material. A woman is not objectified for her gender, whose work takes precedent over her being a woman? Is this the film industry we’re talking about?

Coppola’s films have an innate alienesque quality about them. They radiate with a sort of specific melancholy that mostly arises from her female leads. They’re often at a polar opposite crossroads between relegated stagnance and self-discovery, experienced with the men in their lives to the point of boredom or detachment, and often are stuck between a moral duty to fulfill a societal role or break free to explore and confront their independence and its beckoning for action and engagement; a suitable metaphor for the current state of women in the industry. They’re experienced, revved, and ready to go; they just don’t know (or aren’t provided with equal routes) how to harness full control and take the reins just yet.

How perfectly does Coppola’s style fit the story of The Little Mermaid?  Of course her interpretation will more closely follow the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale than Disney’s lighthearted approach, though even this version poses a few potential problems for Coppola:

  • The subject material is inherently anti-feminist, being that it revolves around a female who essentially sacrifices her way of life for the love of a man, which validates her decision
  • It’s  being billed, as of this publishing, as a family film, meaning that she’ll more than likely  have to compromise her aesthetic to make it more accessible, which could divert any sort of free reign she may have had over the material if it were to be approached with an adult perspective

There’s no doubt that her talent, focus, and perspective will see through to a fresh take on the aforementioned issues. Her continued success as a powerful female director ensures that her career cannot be defined by pure gendered status, that her achievements have not been a fluke, nor have they been an object of an of-the-moment reactionary equality movement.

Coppola’s ability to land such a high-profile directing job speaks volumes about the ever so slight shifting of consciousness regarding gender in the industry, and this is the kind of change that needs to occur at the internal level instead of merely throwing Oscars at whatever of-the-moment minority case is deemed worthy enough to gain gold sympathy.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @joeynolfi